Advent is not only time for expectations, but also a time for reflection. The Institute invites to reflect on identity of Latvian culture with the help of our dear late friend, co-founder of the Latvian Institute and exceptional poet and thinker Mr. Imants Ziedonis (1933-2013).
Namable or Unnamable Identity?
There is a problem whether national cultural identity can be named if, with good reason, it has been said that national identity mostly is irrational, metaphysical and elusive.
I am a poet and am well aware that poems neither yield to translation into prose, nor can they be grasped in any review in their entirety. At the same time, what happens between two lovers on a honeymoon can be expressed in no love poem. Nor the feelings of a believer at the moment when God reveals Himself. That is the presence of the Big One, the state of irreducibility, the riddle of existence - you name it. And yet love has its own schools and teachings, and they can and have been expressed.
Between East and West.
Latvians live along the line of confrontation between East and West, occupying a space diffuse in the political, demographic and philosophical sense; a space where the assessment and evaluation of our nation by the participants tends to be quite diplomatically evasive. One could choose to trust this evasiveness or not to do so.
Our historic experience has taught us caution, because the Latvian nation has been placed in a critical demographic situation. The deportations of hundreds of thousands of innocent people to Siberia during the years of Soviet assimilation, the escape of the wealthiest Latvians to the West, the destruction of all the prosperous farms through forcible collectivization, the eradication of the best young people through conscription in the occupation armies: all this virtually destroyed the Latvian middle class. Of course, it was all done in a purposeful way and, paradoxically, "a systematic annihilation of the identity of the Latvian state and nation was begun at a time when the rest of the world celebrated the victory over Nazism; thus the Latvian land and people were victimized by both the Nazi and the Communist regimes." That is how former president of Latvia, Mr. Guntis Ulmanis, has put it. He also reminds us that no other country lost almost 40% of its population during World War II; no other European country has seven cities where, as a result of post-war russification, the indigenous population has become a minority. New demographic forces swiftly and freely moved into this rarefied space. For the most part, these are Russophile forces that hope to transform Latvia into a Russian satellite. All this should be kept in mind when we talk about Latvian cultural identity. Culture, understood as a quality of national self-confidence, can achieve safety only in a politically guaranteed space.
But Latvian culture today is not a culture of complaint, despite the fact that the world is undergoing a process of market erosion of national values. This erosion is caused by objective factors: the increasingly ephemeral understanding of life; a heightened sense of entropy; amplified pluralism, boundless relativism and anarchy, as well as sectarianism in man's search for God. In Latvia, all these factors have been intensified by the philosophical unpreparedness (after long years of Soviet disorientation), attending our encounter with the intense and free flow of new information.
Idiosyncrasy. The Closed and Open Circles of Culture.
A nation's potential for survival is determined by its material, social and spiritual welfare. When the first two prevail, our capacity for civility is manifest. As we emphasize the latter two, it is culture we are talking about. Within the fields of civilization and culture a nation possesses values of a more genuine, inherent, idiosyncratic and original nature, as well as those of a more integrated, internationalized, reflexive character. Provisionally we can speak of at least two layers of circles of values: those that are unique and idiosyncratic, and those that have arisen as a result of international dialogue. One could call these "values of monologue" and "values of dialogue", respectively.
Contrary to common misconceptions, the more idiosyncratic values of a culture are not always found in its most archaic features. One sign of Latvian idiosyncrasy is the white stork. People respect this bird, they offer help in its search for suitable nesting places, and the possibility that someone might hunt or kill a stork is inconceivable. One cannot imagine the Latvian landscape without stork nests in trees, on top of posts, water towers and even the chimneys of abandoned houses. The fact that this bird chooses to live in Latvia (with the greatest density of stork nests in Europe) can only be explained by the biological and scenic variety of Latvian landscape and by the healthy state of its ecology. At a time when the environment of European countries becomes ever more homogenous and barren this wise bird has found in Latvia the most advantageous conditions for its well being. It does not mean, however, that the white stork has been a permanent fixture of Latvian landscape. Among Latvian folksongs, noted bearers of an almost encyclopedic record of our people's life ways, there are few where the name of the stork is mentioned alongside that of other birds. This means that the density of stork nests, as a sign of Latvian identity, is a phenomenon of recent history.
Another idiosyncratic Latvian symbol is our national hero, Lāčplēsis (Bearslayer). Originating in the archetypal world of fairy-tales, he was actualized and honoured as our “main hero” only in the last century when the writer Andrejs Pumpurs (1841-1902), responding to geopolitical necessity, sought to advance the cause of Latvian liberty by publishing his epic poem of the same name. Lāčplēsis, son of a man and a female bear, is a figure from the ancient totemic world. He is joined by Kurbads, the Mare's Son, who may be an ancient remnant of the globally recognizable centaur myth. In the mythical sense, he is better rooted than Lāčplēsis, seemingly more acceptable today than Lāčplēsis, who as one who kills living creatures, is perhaps an ecologically dubious individual. Such aggression is rare in Latvian folklore, where man appears tolerant, pantheistic, a harmonious and caring part of nature. Why did the nation suddenly need a hero with the grasp and strength of a marine soldier? After all, folksongs touch upon themes of war and warriors only with reluctance; the harshest characterization of warriors is reserved for a few quatrains:
Winds blow over the hill
Churning water in the lake;
My brother rides off to war
Locking his heart up in stone.
Latvia lacks those heroic epics, replete with bloody battles and cruelties, that are common among many other nations. There is no glorification of revenge. So where arose this need for a larger than life athlete, a warrior who can hold his own and even claim victory in the cruelest of battles? My answer is simple. Lāčplēsis was born from our sense of being geopolitically endangered. Andrejs Pumpurs, as a young poet and officer in the Russian-Turkish war, witnessed the scope and cruelty of the battles. He produced his epic poem "in world likeness", complete with a hero to symbolize the national defense force, an embodiment of national self-confidence and strength. In the 19th century, ideas of national romanticism swept across Central and Eastern Europe. The stronger and wiser among the activists of enlightenment, as counterparts to the great world heroes, put forth their own. In Latvia, suffocating for centuries under colonial yoke, national self-confidence had matured to the point that it could mobilize forces necessary for its national survival. And as both East and West posed twin threats of assimilation to this newly self-confident nation, wunderkind Lāčplēsis sprung forth. From that point on this figure grew in tandem with the fight for national survival.
Cultural Identity Means Living.
Identity means "sameness". Comparison needs two sides. And the two sides are represented by our present, our present being and our understanding of that being, our convention, our agreement. Our cultural identity is found only in that which is, lives, wants to live and flourish. It exists and will continue to exist without our attempt to define it. Yet it will flourish and become richer if the intellectuals and, first of all, the social scientists and humanitarians, from their point of vantage, are capable of seeing how the two circles of culture overlap: the limited local culture and the free flowing pan-culture of indeterminate boundaries. That will only be possible if the wise induce, deduce, integrate, appeal, tend and transcend; if they dislocate, encyst and insist, pragmatize and finance; if they do not drink or eat themselves to death. Moreover, if they find the names for all these processes, values, models and methods for communication.
I would like to refer to the quotation from Rainis:
"Encased in a fragile shell,
Our soul joins the eternity of the world…
The soul does not know its own greatness.
But time will come
And it will know also the unknown."
To get information about this Latvian unknown, this Latvian X, one should start with what can be seen and acquired; with what can be given and taken, felt and enjoyed. One should start with the livable. Cultural identity is living. That simple. It could be the traditions that wholly or in part are still living today, or the application of inherited things and shapes, symbols and rites in everyday life. It could be mythical, metaphysical formulae for which the modern man feels some atavistic or saving future need. It could also be the tested values of classical art or the contemporary creativity of contemporary personalities: cultural identity exists only so far as it refers to the present.
The main point of this article is that both local and pan-European cultural politics should do everything possible to demonstrate the cultural idiosyncrasies of each nation visibly, in the quality of mutual exchange and to our mutual benefit. A beautiful, visible example can be found in the buildings by the famous Latvian-American architect Gunārs Birkerts. When asked if he felt something Latvian in himself, in his way of thinking and activities, he replied: "I have always felt I am a Latvian architect… But it is not a feeling I myself could identify. Others have named it ‘the Baltic flow'. The destiny of an architect is to know his own history and culture and his personal genetic and ethnic origin."
This essay is not a systematic study but rather a set of proposals. I point to a number of singular values, apart from the ones mentioned above (Lāčplēsis' ability to subsist and defend culture in a politically dual environment; the affectionate diminutive in folksongs; the national power of concentration in a song festival hymnic chorus; small scale, ecological tourism in a land of storks), that are present in Latvia (and only there) and that are capable of enriching European society.
Among these one could mention the great number of landscape variations in one square kilometer of Latvian land; the Midsummer night's festival, Jāņi, with its unique melodies and fertility rites already absent in the Dionysian festivals of other nations. Another is the Latvian custom of drinking birch sap in spring and making beverages from it to be consumed in the months of summer heat. Yet, another is book publishing: the huge editions of poetry books (up to 35 000 copies for a nation of 1.5 million) and the great number of choirs among which about a dozen have won top prizes at international festivals. From the 18th century on, world construction specialists have been aware of Pinus rigensis, the unique Latvian pine whose wood is considered superior for construction. One has to mention the "Latvju Dainas", eight thick volumes of Latvian folksongs - laconic quatrains that, among many other things, contain essential formulae for building one's character, formulae that are useful still - and perhaps particularly - today. One of these appears to advise us to build personality on four cornerstones: vigor, wisdom, beauty and strength; no personality is complete or harmonious if at least one of these components is missing; they should all be present simultaneously and impervious to any outside influences. "Latvju Dainas" is probably the only collection of ancient epic fragments that has not been translated into world languages and submitted to international research, a collection that is unique in its Sanskritic timelessness and presentation of encyclopedic information in a surprisingly modern way.
Last but not least, there is the Latvian language, one of the last two leaves on the Baltic Language branch that has retained its ancient ties with Sanskrit and deep, philosophically harmonious word meanings. For example, consider the word "raženais", used to denote "a man of culture". "Raženais" has a whole range of meanings: "strong, fertile, well-to-do, rich, effective, controlled, persistent…" "Raženais" is a principle of guidance, empathy and assistance. The formula "a political nation" is meaningless if it does not incorporate the riches offered by the notion of "an ethnic nation". Politics is less than politic without an understanding of human values; a nation is less national if it does not see and respect its inherent ethnic origins. This ethnic initiation in no way contradicts the great futurist objectives: gene engineering, floating cities, three dimensional television, electronic daycare, genetic code or voice as a replacement of fingerprints, a global information network, etc., etc.
It is commonly agreed that Riga is a convincing Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) city. Inspired by the 800th anniversary of Riga, it has become a favorite conference subject, as has the so-called "green architecture" in Latvia, its parks, roadsides, country lanes and landscapes surrounding country estates, or the phenomenon of Latvian song festivals that take place on an unprecedented scale (choirs of up to twenty thousand singers under the guidance of world class conductors).
The list of cultural idiosyncrasies does not end here. The aforementioned are just a few of the more visible ones. The whole range is quite impressive but it is - yes, confined, in the same sense that a gulf attracts surfers from around the globe. It is as confined as an ocean stream that nevertheless bears its own unique name. It can be likened to an ocean breeze on the line where the earth meets the sea: never the same at the time of sunset and sunrise. Why should we always assume that all that we have has been brought by impressive winds from faraway shores? There are winds originating in Latvia that can be felt elsewhere. Winds are born in Latvia as well. And we live within the limits of our peculiarities. Even if they are the limits of limitless winds.
© Text: Imants Ziedonis (1933-2013) a Latvian poet, one of the founders of The Latvian Institute, 1998.